What does success mean to you?

What does success mean to you?

As you are looking to achieve a great career, a very important question that you need to answer is:

What does success mean to you?

The answer can be seemingly obvious to many people: they want to be in a well paying, well respected position where there is purpose and meaning and perhaps a chance to give back and make an impact.  People often envision owning a home with a two car garage and a white picket fence in the suburbs filled with a spouse, two kids and a pet seems to be the standard vision of success.  Now there are definitely different career paths to get there and not always through the highest paying job.

After I ask someone what does success mean to them, I often pose the following question to those I mentor to bring a new perspective to the topic of “success”.

Would you rather:

  1. Have a job that pays $100K/year where all you do is, literally, stare at a computer screen all day OR
  2. Have a job that pays $40K/year where you are doing what you love?

The pause after this question varies but no one (at least so far) has ever had an instantaneous answer.  The decision is money, which is most people’s idea of success, versus doing what you love, which often is only a goal after working for a time (perhaps before, as, or after the “mid-life crisis”).

One person I coach said it depended on what was on the screen, and I said what ever you want.  She was a movie buff so she said she wanted to screen to play movies all day long.  I said great, and did the math where movies are about 1.5-2 hrs each so in a 7.5 -8 hr work day you’d watch 4-5 movies per day, which translated to about 40-50 movies per week.  She was excited and rhymed off 10 movies she really wanted to watch.  But she started slowing down when she reached 20, struggled when she reached 30, then was really grasping as got to the end of the first week.  She could picture that after a month or so in this imaginary job that the $40K option would start to be extremely appealing.  This coming from a self proclaimed movie buff.

Another person I coach said the $40K option hands down.  I said great and proceeded to walk through typical expenses for the life that he wanted to lead and very quickly found out that he wouldn’t be happy with a $40K life but could probably do $80K…

Why is the choice difficult?

Like with many career lessons, there can be a catch.  This catch relates to your definition of success and your perspective on the purpose of work.  In previous generations work meant earning money to pay for your family’s housing and food.  It was toiling in the fields and other forms of manual labor to earn an honest living.  The measurement of success was often how big your pay check was an how much you made.  However, as opportunities grew more abundant and started shifting to a more knowledge based economy, manual “blue collar” labor turned into white collar labor.  At the same time, people’s needs and wants changed where books on baby-boomers and their corresponding generation Y children have started to place a bigger meaning on the purpose and meaning to the work instead of just the resulting pay check.  So that is now leading to a differing option for success where the size of the pay check is of less importance and the experiences achieved and the impact made often wins against more money.   This results in a difficult choice of living up to the measuring stick of society and the higher wage or with the new desires on wanting a career filled with purpose and meaning.

Are there other options?

It would be sad if those two were your only options, and fortunately there are a multitude of others.  And here are a few.

  • Doing what you love could be by finding what you love out of what you’re doing
    • Steve Job’s commencement speech to Stanford said to do what you love, and often by looking at what you’re doing through a new perspective, can greatly alter how much you “love it”
    • So if you needed the $100K there are still ways to convince yourself that you are being successful; I challenged the movie buff after realizing that watching movies could easily turn into a mind numbing task, by asking what could you do to learn or challenge yourself
  • Being rich doesn’t meaning having money, it means being happy with what you have
    • I’ve heard versions of this quote from different places and don’t know who I can credit the original version (let me if you know who said the original), but it essentially says that you can be rich making any amount of money
    • I challenged the person I coached on why he wouldn’t be happy with a $40K life and after some elapsed time inclusive of other discussions, he realized that he could be happy with a $50K life
    • Another quote that resonates with me is that “someone can be rich if they make $20 and their expenses are $19.95; but it is impossible for someone to be rich if they make $100 and their expenses are $100.10”

So ask yourself, what does success mean to you, and see what end of the spectrum you end up.  And the interesting part is that where you land on that spectrum might change, so ask yourself that question periodically to make sure you don’t end up in a rut you never expected.


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